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Feature                                                 Pages 20-27

 

Leadership Squeeze of

Proposed Mergers  

The obstacles aren’t insurmountable, but here are six factors the author has seen get in the way of consummating a consolidation

BY CHARLES S. DEDRICK

I was teaching social studies at a 300-student school district in upstate New York in 1991 when the community was informed we would enter into an annexation study with a neighboring district.

My lasting memory of the merger saga was a group of students and parents loudly singing their high school’s alma mater before the board of education voted to withdraw from the study. To this day, that district, now with 325 enrollees, exists as an independent public school, even though the idea of a merger has been raised multiple times in the 23 years since.

Not unlike fledgling mergers elsewhere, the forces within the community that care deeply about their school, its history and its independence continue to win out over the promise of new academic and extracurricular programs and increased school aid.

Since that time, I have moved on to superintendencies in two school districts and now serve as a BOCES district superintendent whose duties include assisting school districts across New York state that might consider a merger. Yet my previous experience as a teacher in a district flirting with merger with a larger neighbor has stayed with me to this day, so when I talk to superintendents about the obstacles and potentials for merger, I remind them of what I learned years ago.

Slowing Decline
New York state allows various types of mergers depending on the type of school district. As options under state law, we have annexations, centralizations, consolidations and dissolutions. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to the process as “merger.” 

Dedrick
Charles Dedrick (left), superintendent of Capital Region BOCES in Albany, N.Y., says superintendents must understand every aspect of their school community before entering into a district consolidation.

Nationwide, the number of school districts has decreased precipitously, from approximately 117,000 in 1940 to fewer than 14,000 in 2010-11, according to Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of the 2013 study “Size Matters: A Look at School-District Consolidation.” However, nationwide, the majority of these consolidations and closures came in the 1950s and ’60s. Since the late ’80s, the numbers generally have decreased by less than 100 districts per year at the national level, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In New York, according to records provided by the state education department, 16 mergers have been consummated since 1994 with only three in the last 10 years. In Illinois, the number of school districts has dropped to 861, the result of 27 consolidations and annexations since 2004. Since 1983-84, the state has seen 147 districts disappear as part of reorganizations. In California, which has 1,038 local school districts today, department of education reports show 14 mergers in the past five years.

Finite Incentives
But don’t mergers help schools save money, proponents everywhere ask?

Whether a merger will have financial benefits depends on several factors. Studies have shown the financial savings for small school districts that merge could be substantial, by up to 20 percent. However, these same studies show that as the school districts involved in mergers increase in size, the savings diminish. In fact, once the student population reaches approximately 1,500 for each of the districts, generally no savings whatsoever result, according to Syracuse University researchers William D. Duncombe and John M. Yinger. (See their article “School District Consolidation: The Benefits and Costs” in School Administrator’s May 2010 issue.)

Proximity of districts also is an important factor. It only makes sense that two neighboring districts in a highly populated suburban area would see more savings than two distant rural districts where student transportation costs become a major component.

Considerable financial incentives exist for mergers, although these incentives are finite. In New York state, districts that merge receive an aid increase of 40 percent for the first five years of the merger and then for the next 10 years a decrease of 4 percent per year in incentive aid until the extra aid is eliminated entirely in year 15.

Factors for Failure
So why do the majority of proposed school district mergers fail to take place? A half dozen factors are at play, based on what I’ve observed here in New York and what others have reported in other states.

Reason No. 1: Taxes
While financial incentives can be lucrative, insurmountable reasons often make district mergers hard to navigate. The single greatest financial obstacle arises when the two communities have vastly different tax rates on the true value of property.

In order to have the merger approved in both communities, much of any incentive money will be needed for tax stabilization. If one of the communities was to see its tax rate not decrease as much as the other or even possibly increase, the chance of getting a merger approved is slim. According to reports in the Glen Falls Post-Star, this occurred in 2013 when the voters in the Abraham Wing School District, a 160-student, K-6 district located 45 minutes north of Albany, thrice rejected a possible merger with the neighboring Glens Falls City Schools. A study completed in advance of the voting revealed a merger would increase property taxes for Abraham Wing residents, whose school taxes historically have been lower than those in the neighboring city school district.

Reason No. 2: Employee Salaries
Aside from stabilizing the tax rates, a portion of the incentive aid generally is directed at “leveling up” staff salaries. This is a practice that occurs when one of the districts involved in a proposed merger pays lower salaries than the other.

Two years ago, at a merger forum my organization conducted for superintendents and school board members from three counties, someone asked why we had to level up salaries. You certainly don’t have to do so, but if salaries are not leveled up, the potential exists for two teachers in the newly created district to be earning different rates of pay for teaching the same subject area or grade level and having the same number of years of experience.

Reason No. 3: Busing and Geography
While 1+1=2, in a merger equation it still equals 1. The new district that exists after the merger consists of the entire geographic area of the previous two (or more). As a result, school bus runs can be longer and more expensive, and student travel time to and from school can increase markedly. What parents want to see their child on a longer bus ride instead of attending a local community school located a shorter distance from home?

Reason No. 4: Potential School Closures
In many small school districts, the school is the center of that community. While a newly created board of education may do its best to keep a school open, a current board cannot agree to something that binds a future board with such a promise. In New York state in recent years, in at least two separate instances, a single-building school district merged with a larger district, and within a few years, the newly created district discovered how impractical and expensive it was to keep operating the building from the previously independent school district.

In these times of shrinking student populations and tighter finances, school closure always is an option but one that is used as a last resort. However, for those who oppose a school merger, the potential threat of school closure is seen as a powerful weapon against the merger in the first place.

Reason No. 5: Stakeholders
Probably the most overlooked and underappreciated group of stakeholders are the students. Besides teaching social studies in my earlier years, I coached junior varsity basketball, so I understand the importance of interscholastic sports and school colors and mascots in the merger process. (See "Twenty Years in the Making, Two Districts Marry.")

Because of our district’s small size in the early ’90s, any student who tried out for the team or the school musical, landed a roster position or performance role. The talk among students at the time was the realization this no longer would hold true if a merger were to occur. The neighboring district involved in our proposed merger routinely conducted tryouts for the limited slots in whatever the extracurricular activity. I had no doubt the majority of students who were participating in after-school activities were going home to tell their parents or guardians how bad an idea the merger would be. The students needed to be engaged in the process.

Reason No. 6: An Overly Complex Process
While no one process exists for school district mergers in all 50 states, the complexity of the process in New York speaks volumes as to why it is so difficult to complete.

In order to first consider a merger, the boards of education of two or more school districts must adopt resolutions authorizing a study. Following the study’s completion, the state education department must give its approval before the study is presented to the public. At that point, a straw vote of both communities takes place to gauge voter interest. After an affirmative straw vote in both communities, the information is presented to the commissioner of education, who then decides whether a final, binding vote in the districts should take place.

If separate votes in the districts lead to supportive outcomes, the commissioner will order the merger to be consummated. Simply put, the process itself is burdensome and difficult to complete.

A Recent Example
Despite these challenges, successful mergers do occur. In Illinois, 148 district mergers have taken place since 1983, according to a report issued last summer by the Illinois State Board of Education. In California, only a single district consolidation took place in 2011, according to the state education agency.

In New York state between 1979 and the beginning of 2013-14, 34 mergers have taken place — on average, one merger per year over the period. Only two successful mergers involved districts with more than two schools, and none took place with more than three, according to the New York State Education Department. Therefore, if history is any indication of future success, those most interested in merging should limit participation to only two districts.

In the last 10 years, only five mergers have taken place, the most recent being the merger of Illion and Mohawk into the new Central Valley School District. What started in 2008 as a shared-services discussion among four upstate New York school districts turned into a successful two-district merger in 2013 for the Mohawk and Illion School Districts. The new Central Valley School District made its debut last fall.

According to Cosimo Tangorra, Central Valley’s superintendent, the merger was a success because it met three basic criteria:

  • The two districts had similar finances, meaning incentive aid would not be consumed through leveling the tax rates, and both districts had exhausted their financial reserves;
  • The communities shared a similar culture; and
  • Geographically the new district is only about 53 square miles in size.

According to Cuyle Rockwell, who served as communications specialist for the merger project, the key was to keep the communities informed through a steady flow of information to each community. To this end, the superintendents in Mohawk and Illion engaged a core group of 30 stakeholders to form a community advisory committee. The volunteers worked through the opportunities and challenges alongside the superintendents and then, when fully informed, publicly advocated for the merger. The advisory committee became a recognized voice residents could depend on for information.

READ MORE:

Twenty Years in the Making, Two Districts Marry

Keeping the news media regularly abreast of developments was just as important. Editors at the local newspapers and news directors at the region’s TV and radio stations received continuous updates. That combined with the liberal use of social media to directly inform the public helped with the eventual success of the merger.

Surmountable Hurdles
No one should view the hurdles presented by a school merger as insurmountable, so long as the superintendents understand their respective communities before entering into any merger study. Every challenge has a solution, and the proof lies in the new 2,300-student Central Valley School District. (See "Twenty Years in the Making, Two Districts Marry.")

Through leadership, resolve and an excellent communications plan, district mergers can and will continue to occur. But the low-hanging fruit in school mergers is long gone. These days it takes much greater time, effort and energy for a successful merger to take place. n

Charles Dedrick is district superintendent of Capital Region BOCES in Albany, N.Y., and an AASA Executive Committee member. E-mail: charles.dedrick@neric.org. Twitter: @csdedrick

 

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